Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a hugely broad and varied collection of conditions, symptoms, and traits – so trying to gather ‘autistic friendly’ guidelines is a difficult task. However, a few basic rules of thumb, and a keener understanding of what to look out for will go a long way.
Understanding ASD Basics
Autism is a cognitive disorder characterised by social discomfort, repetitive behaviours, linear focus, concrete thinking, and difficulties with language. The spectrum is so broad that you may not notice any traits at all – but you could also see so many physical and behavioural characteristics that you end up mistaking it for something else.
Physically, you might see a young person constantly making fists, shaking their arms, or flapping. They might hum, or click their tongue. They might resist physical contact, and will often struggle making eye contact.
Socially you could experience a young person with ASD standing too close to you when they talk, speaking too loudly, or ‘ignoring’ cues. They can be uncomfortably honest or seem inappropriately aloof.
One of the most common traits, however, is a difficulty when trying to grasp something abstract. So taking figuratively, sarcastically, or metaphorically can be a huge wall to concrete understanding.
Common Problems in Youth Clubs for Autistic Young People
We do love our extrovert-driven, spontaneous and loud up front presence don’t we? But these three pieces can actually be the most unhelpful traits for integrating young people on the spectrum.
Extrovert-driven assumes a social ease, spontaneous assumes that unpredictability is comfortable, and loud assumes an ability to take complex cues from voice changes. None of these are necessarily safe assumptions with autistic young people.
Then our teaching styles can be heavily reliant on abstract story telling and object lessons. Both of which are an enemy to the concrete learner. I often do a talk about two figurative people called ‘Bill and Ben’ who live in a cardboard box that I hold in my hands. An young person with ASD might not know that I’m talking figuratively, and that the box I hold doesn’t actually contain some form of tiny person called Bill.
Some Guidelines for ASD Friendly Projecting
Your ministry should serve the people that come – so I’m not going to suggest you change everything to fit all the varying people that could ever be. This would also be impossible! Some of these guidelines, while being very helpful to many young people with ASD, might be incredibly unhelpful to, say a young person with Downs Syndrome. So read with caution and apply with care.
There are loads of tips and guidelines online that you can find to help you – here are just a few that I’ve found to be particularly useful:
Having a regular plan, or at least consistent names for project elements (‘game time’) will create a track that a young person with ASD can follow. They know what’s coming next and can transition smoothly into it. Sometimes it’s worth printing off a simple plan for a session that they can follow, with a space to tick off what happens as they go. Routine, although we can hate it as youth workers, is really important to a young person with ASD.
Know The Parents
Talking to parents can give you clear insights into the particular triggers and needs of their own child. This allows you to fit into the young person’s social development while learning how you can very specifically support their needs.
Be Visual and Tip Your Hat to the Concrete
Having clear, physical, colourful visual aids can really help to teach young people with ASD – especially when they are things that they can handle and work with themselves. At the same time, when you teach with objects and when you use stories, do make a note that it is ‘just a story’ or ‘just a metaphor’.
Create Your Environment With Care
It’s tempting to fill a youth space with lots of competing sounds and sights – filling the room with intense environmental distraction. This can be torturous to a young person with ASD, and makes it almost impossible for them to focus. I’d actually argue that this habit we have towards intense levels of environmental distraction is bad for most young people anyway – even those with ADHD. Choose your environment carefully – take care particularly over the overt use of lights and sounds.
Watch Your Language
By which I mean abstract, figurative, sarcastic, over over generalising language. In the same way you would speak to someone who has learned English as a second language, avoid too much that needs interpretation over translation. It’s great to use abstract language – just make sure that you let people have another way of seeing it too.
Provide For Unstructured Time
Many young people love the free time to create their own activities and have their own conversations. This time, however, can be very difficult for an young person with Autism. Always make sure there is some optional ‘thing to do’ or ‘space to be’ in unstructured times.
Keep Instructions Simple
Everyone hates a three hour explanation for a game anyway. Find a way of communicating complicated instructions simply and visually that doesn’t have long sequences. Videos can be similarly difficult to follow, so if you have it, then turn on the closed captions feature.
Provide For Note Taking
If you’re giving talks or asking them to take notes or write anything down – provide for how they do this. One young person I know with ASD loves to draw – so during talks I’d let them draw what they think I’m saying on a board at the front. Sometimes handwriting can be a struggle – so why not provide a laptop or tablet for them to use? This is particularly important to think about in nonverbal young people.
Allow For Messiness
Some young people with ASD can focus better if they are standings, rolling, swinging, bouncing from foot to foot, or just walking around. Create a youth work culture that accepts this as ok (within reason), and provides safe spaces for it.